Dr Alison Pike says ignoring your child may help behaviour

Helicopter parents take note – ignoring your children might be the best way to get them to behave, a leading psychologist advised yesterday.

And when it comes to sweets and snacks, parents should never give in to pester power, a leading psychologist advised yesterday.

Dr Alison Pike, a developmental psychologist at Sussex University has reviewed research findings to come up with seven strategies taken from child development studies that could help parents.


Helicopter parents take note – ignoring your children might be the best way to get them to behave, a leading psychologist advised yesterday (stock image) 


Children are not learning resilience and grit because health an safety-obsessed teachers are wrapping them in cotton wool, according to the Ofsted chief.

Amanda Spielman, the top inspector of schools, has said schools putting too much of an emphasis on safeguarding pupils is leading to them being ill-equipped to deal with challenges they face after leaving school.

She wants headteachers to be able to distinguish between ‘real and imagined risk’, even though safeguarding is given the same weight as quality of teaching, management and pupils’ attainment when inspectors visit schools.

Spielman said inspectors also needed to tweak the way they judged schools and writing in the Sunday Telegraph she said: ‘My message to schools is this – keeping children safe from harm should always be your overriding concern, but in doing so, make sure you distinguish between real and imagined risk. 

In a talk called ‘Parenting 101’ at the British Science Festival in Brighton she laid out seven strategies she hopes will be useful in bringing up children – based on psychological research.

Dr Pike, who appeared on Channel 4’s The Secret Life of 4, 5 and 6 Year olds said she had ‘pulled out’ seven different ‘strategies…any of which might help to make family life that little bit happier.’

She also said she tries to apply them to her own two boys, aged six and eight as much as she can.

One of the most powerful strategies uncovered by psychology is to ‘ignore, ignore, ignore’ your children.

Research in the 1980s by Judy Dunn of Cambridge University shows that ‘when children are playing and mum is close by, fighting doubles compared to when mother is out of eyeshot, in the next room.’

‘It is really powerful to not pay attention to behaviours we don’t like.’ She added of her own boys: ‘If I can stop interfering with a squabble in the next room, they almost always work it out.’ She added that the same tactic also works well with work colleagues.

She said instead of applying a ‘time out’ to a child, or putting them on the naughty step, ‘you can remove yourself instead.’

‘Our attention is our most powerful reward’ she said. By paying attention to an annoying behaviour, you in effect encourage the other person to do it.

Another powerful idea was that of ‘intermittent reinforcement’ an idea first discovered in the 1940s in mice – and toddlers and young children can act in a similar way.

The idea first came from studies of mice who were trained to press a response lever for food at specific times – such as when mice heard a beep.

She said: ‘What makes a mouse press the lever more and more and more? Not when they get food every single time, but when they get food sometimes. They are not sure when, just sometimes the lever seems to

‘Intermittent reinforcement: What does this have to do with children?

‘One example where intermittent reinforcement comes into play is when children ask for sweets. My boys ask for sweets every single day, several times a day.

‘It irritates me. Most of the time I say no. Once a week or so, I say ‘OK, let’s go to the corner shop.’

‘So of course they ask me all the time.’

In adults, this helps to explain why gamblers get addicted – most of the time people lose, but just occasionally they win – and this is highly addictive – making them to go on, again, and again.

While Dr Pike has not managed to live up to her own doctrine, a friend that never gives in has successfully adopted it with good results.

The advice also applies to crying through the night – occasionally going to a crying baby in the night will get a baby ‘to cry all night long’.

In other words of advice, she said it is a good idea for parents to think of themselves ‘gardeners not sculptors’ – this entails not dictating exactly how you want your children to behave – but creating the situation where they will thrive. She said each child comes with their own genetic propensities – and said ‘you can’t turn a daisy into an orchid.’

In a similar vein, she said it is more important to focus on having good relationships with children rather than trying to mould their behaviour. A child who likes his or her parents is more likely to want to do what they say rather than one who is being told off a lot – and will resent what they say.

Parents should strive for ‘more order and less chaos’, Dr Pike said. Research has shown regular bedtimes and bathtimes help troubled children to become happier.

She said one way to ‘create a bit of calm’ is to go round a house and turn off TVs and computers. Another tactic is to ‘do less’ and avoid scheduling things back to back where a parent has to rush from one event to another.

Quality is more important than quality, Dr Pike said. She said ‘You don’t need to be perfect and attentive to my child from the moment they get home from the school to the minute they go to bed.

‘But how about we have 15 minutes doing something together we both enjoy, then we can go and do our own thing.’

Listening to children is better than being rigidly fair with them – as she says that fairness ‘is in the eye of the beholder’. ‘Objective reality is not nearly as important as how a child feels.

‘We need to really listen to what a child is thinking and feeling, even when it is ridiculous. So a child may say ‘You ruined my life’ because you refused to buy them their designer trainers.

Dr Pike said instead of objectively spelling out all the ways this is untrue, it is better to say something like’Oh maybe you are worried that your friends will tease you about your trainers.’

And as a final strategy, backed up by studies of troubled children: Dr Pike advises mothers to treat themselves from time to time as ‘if Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.’

She explains: ‘Mothers need to be sure they are looking after themselves. It is really important for a mother’s mental health and do things that make you happy such as going to a spa. 


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